1 Corinthians 5 is a difficult scripture for many Christians, because we want to believe that the church is full of godly people. In reality, the church is a mixed bag of saints and sinners, of those who are truly seeking the Lord in their lives, and those who are not. Some people are Christians in name only, but reality shows that their behavior is unregenerate, no different from the rest of the world. In this chapter, Paul talks about how to handle those who are in need of "church discipline."
Now, before I go any further, let me say that everybody sins. My sin is no better or worse than your sin, or anybody else's sin. "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23)." This study on 1 Corinthians 5 keeps in mind that no person is better than another, because "none is righteous, no, not one (Romans 3:10)." There is, however, a need to keep the church from being infected by rampant sin, and a need to show people how grievous their sin is, when it corrupts other members of the body of Christ.
This study bears in mind Jesus' teaching about taking the logs out of our own eyes, before we take the specks out of other people's eyes. Click here to read my article about that. It also recalls Jesus' teachings about forgiveness and restoration. Click here to read my article about that.
In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul deals with sin that is so egregious that its taint has infected the entire congregation. This sin has become open and notorious, and indeed those who indulge in it have become sin-missionaries, wanting to spread their licentiousness to others. In verses 1-5, Paul says:
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father's wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.
The problem here is not simply the fact that this church member is sleeping with his stepmother. It goes beyond that, to the fact that the church is arrogant about it. "So what?" they say. "Jesus forgives us for our sins, so the more we sin, the more forgiveness we'll have!" Paul addresses this flippant attitude toward sin in Romans 6:1 when he says, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" The fact that Paul brings up this question gives evidence to the pervasiveness of this false teaching. Paul knows that in order to cut this heresy out of the church, he has to cut the purveyors of this lie out of the church as well.
|"A little leaven leavens the whole lump"|
Paul's solution: remove the offending brother from the church. Now, Paul almost certainly wrote this prescription before Matthew chronicled his version of Jesus' ministry. Paul did not have Matthew 18 to draw from. Still, it's safe to presume that discreet attempts had been made by some of the true believers in the congregation, to persuade the licentious brother to change his ways, before this became a church-wide matter. However, not only had the behavior remained--it seems that the congregation as a whole affirmed it. Again, since it hadn't been written, they couldn't quote Matthew 7:1, which says, "Judge not, that you be not judged." However, the sentiment must have existed at the time.
Yet, Paul claims his apostolic authority and pronounces judgment nevertheless. In 1 Corinthians 5:12-13, Paul writes: "For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. 'Purge the evil person from among you.'”
So, should we judge, or should we not judge?
There is a difference between condemning a person for their actions, where you say, "This person is worthless, a sinner, someone who deserves damnation," and making a decision to eliminate a person's evil influence from the church, for the good of everyone in the congregation. In the first case, you write the person off entirely. In the second case, there is still room for restoration. Because he is a believer, this man is still saved, despite his actions that grieve the Holy Spirit. Turning him out of the church, and relinquishing him to Satan for the destruction of his flesh sounds pretty harsh. But hope is found in the knowledge that his spirit will be saved in the Day of the Lord. Certainly, though, the hope is greater than that. Restoration to the church may take place, when there is repentance. Indeed, 2 Corinthians 2:5-11 shows that this man did return to the church with a contrite heart. Paul writes:
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure—not to put it too severely—to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him. For this is why I wrote, that I might test you and know whether you are obedient in everything. Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. Indeed, what I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ, so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.
So, Paul's judgment wasn't for the sake of either discrimination or condemnation. Rather, it was so that the man, being turned over to the power of Satan, might see the error of his ways. Like the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32) who longed for his father's house, the errant man remembered the solace of Christ's body the church. Repenting of his sins, he returned and was restored to fellowship. This is the whole point of church discipline--not condemnation, but contrition.
Certainly, self-discipline is far better than needing to submit to church discipline. Returning to righteousness is much better when you do it on your own. No one wants their sins confronted publicly. Instead, God wants us to come to him simply because we realize that we've done wrong. Two passages in our Isaiah readings demonstrate this today:
For thus said the Lord God, the Holy One of Israel,
“In returning and rest you shall be saved;
in quietness and in trust shall be your strength (Isaiah 30:15).”
And the effect of righteousness will be peace,
and the result of righteousness, quietness and trust forever (Isaiah 32:17).
This is God's will for our lives--not sin and shame and embarrassment. Not isolation and judgment and suffering. How wonderful it would be, if we would simply trust that when God says something is off-limits, we would avoid it? How much better it would be, if God's people would learn to avoid sin, rather than pushing the limits of God's grace! Like the Prodigal Son, when we wander, God is always willing to take us back. He wants us to return and be restored. He wants to give us rest and strength when we come to Him in quiet trust.
Today, you might be like the man in 1 Corinthians 5. You've wandered pretty far from God's path. You've done some pretty rotten things. Maybe it's even gotten to the point where people have thrown their hands in the air and are done with you. Separated from the people of God, you've found that Satan has had even more power in your life. You know that you need to be set free. The good news is that God is not done with you. There's still time for you to repent and come home to Jesus. If you need some help with this, then I'd sure like to talk with you. Just email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'll do whatever I can to help. Because Jesus wants you restored, not rejected. He wants to see you recovered and reclaimed by His love.
*All scripture taken from the ESV.